Photo Credit: File Photo

I blinked and I missed it. It came to an end without my knowledge, realization only seeping in when I noticed the neighborhood kids had stopped wearing their uniforms.

Only a few years ago I would have known; it would have been on the fridge calendar, the date circled in bright purple. We would have celebrated with a trip to the library and ice cream for supper. But this year I was clueless, the last day of school no longer on my radar.

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As often happens with momentous events, I remember exactly where I was and what I was doing when my new reality rudely approached me and gave me a little shove…

After a brutal winter, it was glorious waking up to a morning that was sunny and warm, lifting the spirits of even a non-morning person such as myself. After inhaling my first cup of Starbucks veranda blonde and waking up my youngest daughter for school, I began the lunch-making process. It was Wednesday: tuna and salad day.

I meticulously cut up the sweet orange pepper, making sure each strip was the perfect thickness without any of the seeds or weird white webbings that make them inedible. Next came the mashing of the tuna with the addition of the perfect ratio of mayo – not so much to make it soggy but enough to counterbalance its dryness. Using the residual Pesach brand tuna was okay, but the Pesach mayo was verboten, so the process required extra finesse.

As I went into the pantry to get the perfectly-proportioned 4-oz. disposable tupperware for precisely ½ can of tuna, I mentally took note of how many were left and approximately when I would need to make a trip to Target for those oh-so-specifically-sized tuna carriers. Control freak that I am, it shocked me to the core to realize that this was the last Wednesday of the school year and, since my daughter was a senior in high school, my last tuna lunch packing. Ever.

Even though my daughter had been counting down to the last day of classes for weeks, graduation was still six weeks away and finals still had to be taken, so I was legitimately caught off guard. I slowly opened her whimsical owl lunch box and put in the hot pink cold pack with the rest of her lunch. Unexpectedly, tears sprang into my eyes as I sealed shut the Velcro fastener of the bag. The owl and I contemplated each other and I gently put the bag next to my daughter’s cereal bowl.

A few days later, I shared my bittersweet moment with a friend. Instead of getting the moral support I expected, I was mom-shamed. She chastised me for babying my daughter and for making myself into a schmatta. I tried to explain to her that I made lunches out of love, not out of obligation, but she didn’t get it.

My feelings had nothing to do with lunch and everything to do with the imminent demise of the physicality of parenting. As liberating as it was to be done with the constant schlepping and the impromptu driving and the endless pediatrician visits, I was also done with the impromptu hugs and kisses and that wonderful feeling of completeness when you know exactly where your children are and that they are safe. I was ambivalent about relinquishing this aspect of mothering, of transitioning to parenting remotely via texting and phone calls.

I remembered the day a few years prior when my husband and I moved our oldest daughter into the Stern dorm. She had never been away from home before for any long period of time, and this was going to be a new experience for everyone. After we kissed her goodbye, we watched her cross the length of 34th street. In my mind’s eye she was a five-year-old again. How was I letting a five-year-old cross this gigantic street without holding my hand? And how was it possible that now both of my babies had crossed that street and left me alone on the other side?

Everything with my oldest was a series of “firsts.” First time being called Mommy, first siddur party, first time experiencing the terror of a baby spiking a fever. Having two children meant kid #1 was first for everything and kid #2 wasn’t just second, but also last. This tuna lunch packing was the first in a series of “lasts.” The last time a yellow bus would stop in front of my house. The last report card. The last high school graduation.

I was sad. I was happy. I was conflicted. My youngest also went on to dorm at Stern and this was not a new experience, but now I had no kids living at home during the week. The house was quiet, so quiet. Who knew that two teenage girls could fill space so utterly and completely, their absence a palpable entity?

The extra time in my life was both friend and enemy. I went back to work full time, something I had not done since an initial disastrous attempt 20 years prior when I mistakenly thought I was superwoman. I was lucky they came home for Shabbos, ostensibly to refuel and sleep, but also to reconnect in a way that couldn’t be done on the phone. I knew that this partial “awayness” was a perfect way to prepare myself for the shock of the inevitable true empty nest.

I myself had not experienced this gradual lengthening of the umbilical cord. I grew up in the heart of Flatbush and attended Brooklyn College, which meant I rolled out of bed and walked the three blocks to attend classes. I married young without ever having been away from home for longer than a summer. Many years after I was married my mother shared with me how hard it was for her when I left home even though she still had five other kids to take care of. Again, I knew I was lucky that I would not experience that abrupt separation.

I wish I could go back in time and tell my younger self what happens in the future. I wish I could reassure her and tell her not to worry so much. Everywhere I go now I am surrounded by shiny young mothers and their sparkly little girls. I watch them out of the corner of my eye, and we smile when we make eye contact. I imagine they can see that I too am a mother, even though my own sparkly daughters are sparkling elsewhere. Telepathically, I try to send wisdom and encouragement in their general direction, and the fleeting encounter fills me with sweet nostalgia.

I come across the owl lunch box now and then when the chaos of the kitchen cabinet erupts into an avalanche of abandoned school paraphernalia. I make a halfhearted attempt to declutter but can’t bear to throw away the lunch box. The owl and I contemplate each other once again and I safely tuck him away until next time.

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Dr. Chani Miller, the mother of two daughters, is the chief optometrist at Park Eye Center, a private optometric practice in Highland Park. NJ.